The Pirate Of Penance

This essay is up on Torah Currents but due to some minor formatting issues I’m also posting it here.

Following one opinion in B. Megillah 31a, the Torah reading for the first day of Rosh Hashana is the 21st chapter of Bereishit. Although the Talmud does not explicitly say why this passage is chosen for Rosh Hashana, the general assumption is that it is because God’s remembering of Sarah in 21:1 actually occurred on Rosh Hashana itself (Rosh Hashana 11a). The implied significance of this connection would be that just as God remembered Sarah on Rosh Hashana, he should also remember us and our prayers on this day as well.

However even a superficial look at the chapter shows that God’s remembering of Sarah is a relatively minor part of the chapter, being taken care of with the first 2-8 verses depending on how you count. Were Sarah really the focal point of the Torah portion, we should reasonably expect the Torah reading to include chapter 18 where the angels come to Avraham and then conclude with Sarah conceiving and giving birth to Yitzhak. Instead, the one who is featured most prominently, both quantitatively (19 verses) and contextually, is apparently Yishmael.

Highlighting Yishmael on one of the most important days of the Jewish year is strange to say the least, especially considering his reputation in Jewish literature. As we will read on the first day, Sarah demanded Avraham expel Yishmael after she saw him being “metzahek” (21:9), which according to three opinions in Bereishit Rabba, could refer to adultery, idolatry, murder, or conceivably all three. This is hardly the exemplar of ethical conduct whom we ought to emulate let alone publicize on Rosh Hashana.

The cynic could argue that we are reminding God of the Yishmaels of the world just in case he grades on a curve. However, a look at another midrash gives us a very different perspective of Yishmael, one which may help us understand why this particular Torah reading is so relavent.

After Hagar in her state of anxiety and thirst abandons Yishmael, she is visited by an angel herself who says that God, “heard the voice of the lad (Yishmael) where he is – ‘ba’asher hu sham‘ (21:17).”

R. Yitzchak interprets the last idiom that Yishmael was judged by God in his current the spiritual state, “we do not judge a person except based on his deeds at that time” (B. Rosh Hashana 16b). R. Simon in Bereishit Rabba expounds on this interpretation with a dialogue between God and his Angels:

Angels: This person [Yishmael]. whose descendants will kill your children by thirst (Is. 21:13), you will save now (from his thirst)?
God: In what state is he now? [Is he righteous (tzaddik) or wicked (rasha)]. 1Angels: He is righteous – tzaddik
God: Then I will judge him as he is now – ba’asher hu sham (as oppposed to what he descendants will do in the future)

While it’s very considerate of God to judge Yishmael in his current spiritual state, it is hard to overlook that only a eight verses ago Yishmael was an adulterer, idolater, and/or a murderer. Unless the standards for “righteous” have been inflated, then based on the previous midrash it seems inconceivable for the angels to call Yishmael a tzaddik, and for God to agree with their assessment.

The most plausible reconciliation of these midrashim is to assume that at some point the interim Yishmael performed one of the most effective teshuvot in the history of mankind. Yet the Torah barely provides any information as to this outstanding act of repentance. 21:17 only tells us that “God heard the voice of the lad.” This is hardly the type of press we’d expect for such a thorough teshuvah. Not only are we not told directly that “Yishmael prayed to the Lord,” but the Torah does not even record his name. If this prayer was enough to turn an adulterer/idolater/murderer into a tzaddik, one would think it would be praised as the epitome of repentance. The Torah ought to compliment Yishmael or at least acknowledge his astounding change of heart instead of relegating his prayer to an anonymous cry done behind the scenes.

Unless of course, that is exactly what made the teshuvah so effective.
Yishmael prayed out of desperation, when he realized there was no one around who could save him. Having been abandoned by his father and mother, he called out to God for help for no other reason other than salvation. It did not matter who else was around, who may have been listening, or how he would be perceived. Ulterior motives such as prestige and recognition were irrelevant to Yishmael, and so he was able to sincerely and completely change his entire outlook on life.

With all the special lectures, classes, and articles on the importance of teshuvah, it’s easy to ignore that repentance is still fundamentally about changing ones actions. And with the public pomp and pageantry of the holiday services, it is easy to forget that this teshuvah is only between the individual and God. These points, while seemingly obvious, often get ignored while we concentrate on the trappings of religious fervor. But to achieve the real and genuine teshuvah, one must move past the gestures and actually work to change oneself for the better – regardless of of the gain or loss of social status.

Reish Lakish teaches that teshuvah may even turn intentional sins into accidental one, or perhaps even merits (B. Yoma 86b), but this assumes the teshuvah is genuine and sincere to the point where it external repercussions become trivial. We need to not only match the drive and emotion of Yishmael, but also to follow his lead and channel it towards personal development.

If we succeed, then perhaps we can merit to have Yishmael’s change of status as well.


  1. Some manuscripts omit the bracketed phrase.


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